Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 49
Chapter 16 – The Battle of Oxford
Allenson adjusted the mask over his face until it covered his mouth, eyes and nose. It supplied metallic air that tasted like an iron based tonic wine. A thick cable ran to a box strapped over his left hip that acted as an artificial lung. It filtered out undesirable vapors and pumped in nitrogen and oxygen. Exhaled air evacuated through a valve in front. Something in his humid warm breath reacted with the marsh vapors to create a white smoke that strung slowly into streamers in the light breeze.
The mask design assumed the limited oxygen requirements of a man doing no more exercise than a gentle stroll. Unfortunately Allenson took his turn at pulling on a line attached to a sledge loaded with hydraulic equipment.
The sticky ooze sucked at his feet making each step a struggle. He tried to remember which idiot had decided that it would be easier to drag sledges through the mud at the side of the peninsula rather than manhandle the loads along the rocky on top. He couldn’t recall but he did remember which idiot had approved the idea – him.
Not that he had much choice. He had explored the concept of modifying various vehicles to run along the peninsula but it was full of jagged rocks. Sooner or later there would be a catastrophe letting explosive fumes into the motor.
He took another deep breath, sucking in air against the resistance of the equipment and exhaling so hard that pressure built up in the mask. It lifted slightly. When it snapped back into position the merest trace of acidic vapor entered around the edge, stinging his eyes and nose. He resisted the urge to cough. The pressure pulse would probably let in more of the toxic whiff and crease his eyeballs for good measure.
Steadying his breathing he took another step and heaved on the line. Something under his foot squirmed. The locals assured him that nothing bigger than a bacterium lived in the swamp so the movement must just be a release of gas. An unconvinced part of his mind toyed with pictures of large amorphous things with tentacles and parrot beaks. Get a grip, man, he thought forcing his imagination back to sleep.
The officer in front of him was on a rest period. He held a nightscope, one of the handful of devices that Kiesche approved for use in the swamp. Hawthorn ruthlessly strip-searched each soldier before they started, discarding anything with a power source that just might create a spark if it malfunctioned. Allenson insisted on being publically searched first to set an example.
Guns were the first to go. Hawthorn personally chose each person for the security detail and muscle part of the expedition but it was still astonishing how many tried to smuggle in a pistol. Each one assured Hawthorn that he only had it as a safeguard for unforeseen circumstances. Hawthorn ignored it all. If you let people carry guns then sooner or later some fool will panic and blow us all up, was his only comment to Allenson.
He encouraged the troopers provide themselves with a variety of sharp-edged and blunt instruments as personal choice dictated. Allenson could not imagine any circumstances where they might prove useful but such primitive weapons could do no harm and were a sop to morale. Many of the people Hawthorn selected were from the ranks of his security group rather than the line soldiery. This no doubt explained their attachment to clubs and the like.
“About a hundred and fifty meters to go,” the officer with the scope said breaking into Allenson’s thought processes.
The small speaker in his mask made his voice squeaky, like someone who inhaled helium as a party trick. Allenson nodded to save his breath for pulling. There was enough ambient light cast across the swamp from the port and the city for Allenson to see the officer as a dark outline. Theoretically anyone training a scope on the swamp from Oxford could spot Allenson’s small expedition but why would they bother? There was damn all they could do about it anyway.
The expedition pulled five sledges in all, three carrying equipment and the other two supplies. It took another hour to yomp the last one hundred and fifty meters as everyone was close to exhaustion. One man fell face down in the slime. Unfortunately he panicked and pulled off his mask when sediment blocked its valves. One breath was all it took. His companions got the mask back on him but by then he was still. They piled him on a sledge but Allenson suspected that the trooper was already dead.
The soldiers were so knackered when they reached their destination that Allenson told them to climb up on the low jumble of rocks and wait for dawn before unloading. He sent back a coded message signaling the party’s safe arrival before wedging himself uncomfortably between two boulders. Rather to his surprise, he dozed off almost immediately.
Trina and Ling watched the operation from Allenson’s office via a secure line to a nightscope positioned in the siege lines. Trina’s hands clenched when the trooper slipped into the ooze but she showed no other sign of the stress she was under.
“That’s not the general,” Ling said confidently. “I can quite clearly see him at the front.”
“I believe you are right,” Trina replied.
They both lied. All the scope showed were struggling silhouettes barely distinguishable from the background. Her knuckles stayed white until the signal arrived, the precise form of the message indicating that all essential personnel were in place which must of necessity include Allenson. In her relief she talked more than she would normally have considered necessary.
“I don’t understand why Allen had to personally undertake this operation,” she said. “It’s not like he knows anything about engineering.”
“Strictly speaking that is true,” Ling said carefully. “But the strike is critical so I expect he wanted to be on hand in case unexpected developments required an immediate response from him personally.”
“Like what?” Trina asked.
“Well, um, anything I suppose,” Ling replied, evasively.
Trina glared at the Chief of Staff.
“Give me an example?” she asked, remorselessly pressing the point.
“The, ah, Brasilians might, well….suppose…”
His voice trailed off.
“That’s what I thought,” Trina said crushingly. “There is no good reason for my husband to hazard himself.”
“It’s the first offensive move by the army so I expect he wanted to set an example by leading from the front,” Ling said loyally.
“Ridiculous and you know it,” Trina snapped. “Generals make plans but their combat officers carry them out. He’s just being irresponsible because he can’t bear to stay away from the sharp end. It never seems to occur to him that he is as mortal as anyone else and what will happen to his precious army if he gets himself killed? Answer me that? People die in wars. They die stupidly, pointlessly by sheer chance.”
Ling stayed silent.
“Sorry, Colonel Ling, I’m just worried about him. I shouldn’t embarrass a gentleman by inviting him to criticize his superior officer’s ludicrous behavior even if it is just privately to the man’s wife.”
Ling muttered something
“I said it will soon be light.”
“Really? I thought you said: especially to his wife.”
“The difficult part is over. There’s nothing now the Brasilians can do,” Ling said reassuringly.
Trina would have none of it.
“I don’t pretend to know anything about war, Colonel, but I do understand business. It’s exactly when you know your competitor can’t counter your move that he does so anyway.”
“Colonel Hawthorn is in charge of the operation and I’m sure he will take good care of the general. From what I’ve seen I would say the Colonel is a most effective officer.”
“Oh he has many competencies,” Trina said tonelessly.
Ling glanced at her sharply but her mouth was set in a hard line as she watched the scope. She clearly didn’t intend to expand upon the point.
A figure danced in the flames, his head thrown back, his mouth open soundlessly screaming. His hair blazed like molten lava. Allenson reached out to try to pull him from the flames but the figure shook him off. The shaking went on and on.
“Rise and shine, General,” Hawthorn said and shook him again.
Allenson licked his lips inside the mask. He put his head close to Hawthorn’s so he could speak quietly.
“I wasn’t, you know, saying anything odd, was I?”
Hawthorn looked at him sharply.
“Have the nightmares started again?”
Allenson shook his head. The mask disguised his features. It was easier to lie just by body language although he doubted if Hawthorn was fooled. He levered himself awkwardly to his feet. One of his knees had frozen and his back felt as if a regiment had marched up and down it.
“Too many nights sleeping in a soft bed,” Hawthorn said with a grin.
Allenson told him to commit an act that a double jointed teenage acrobat would have found demanding and surveyed their surroundings. Rosy light filtered over the horizon flooding the green tinge of the marsh with a pastel pink. The first flicker of the sun gleamed where the sea met the sky.
Breakfast consisted of a tube of nutrient fluid with added stimulants squirted through a valve in the mask. It tasted like salted baby food. Kiesche was already up and with his engineering crew to supervise the assembly of his apparatus. He hopped from installation to installation like an overworked midwife dealing with three simultaneous births.